Is This Any Way To Ruin A Railroad?


Predictably, the railroad executives yelped. On the face of it, their anguish was puzzling: from 1958 through 1964 their mail revenues consistently hovered around $330,000,000 a year; higher than ever before, more than half as much as the revenues for carrying people; more, it would seem, than the railroads deserved to be paid, after so thoroughly discombobulating the mail service. Why then should railroad officials gripe about an occasional cancelled contract? An answer can be found in one of the earliest plaints, by the Eastern Railroad Presidents Conference, in February, 1958: At recent hearings in the Interstate Commerce Commission’s Passenger Deficit Investigation [said a statement by the conference] it was brought out that frequently the railroads have been forced to discontinue passenger trains because the Post Office Department has taken the mail away.

The unmistakable implication here was that the railroad presidents had been nobly struggling to save the passenger service but that the wicked Post Office had “forced” the defeat of their efforts. This was not true. The commission knew it was not true and said so. The railroad presidents also knew it was not true; one must ruefully conclude that here is another example of their fibbing. Their statement went further: On top of this, the Post Office Department has been diverting the more profitable mail to airlines and truckers wherever it feels that it will be to its advantage. … The diversion of the more profitable mail traffic away from the railroads will eventually weaken the railroads’ ability to provide a national system of mail service and [has] already caused or helped to cause the discontinuance of many passenger trains.

Here was a superb example of a multiple untruth, one that contains in a small compass so much distortion, irrelevance, unwarranted assumption, and flat inaccuracy that it can be properly corrected only by rewriting it entirely and quite changing its meaning and thrust. Yet in the years that have followed, the railroad executives have nurtured this untruth to a luxurious growth, for it perfectly serves their purpose.

At length, the officials at the Post Office came to weary of their role as the bad guys in the steady slaughter of the rail passenger service. They dug back into their files and presently were able to show that, from February 1, 1953, to December 31, 1966, a total of 2,528 mail-carrying passenger trains had been discontinued, of which 1,730 were discontinued after their mail traffic had been removed at the request of the railroads, and 798 were discontinued after their mail traffic had been removed on the initiative of the Post Office.

So all the propaganda from the railroads about the wicked Post Office assays at a little better than thirty per cent accurate—which is, to be sure, a phenomenal batting average for truth in the railroad business.

At all events, it seems clear that the mail revenues provide very inadequate support for a healthy passenger service. On January 1, 1967, only 876 passenger trains carried the mail.

During the early 1960’s the industry did little to refurbish or to replace its deteriorating passengerservice equipment, or to make any effort on behalf of its passengers. To be sure, there were still a few companies that welcomed their passengers and afforded them courteous and comfortable service; still a few companies to remind the world that, at their best, American trains are unrivalled; and of these few, one must mention the Seaboard Coast Line for its trains to and from Florida, the Illinois Central for its trains between Chicago and New Orleans, the Great Northern and the Northern Pacific for their limiteds through the northwest, the Burlington and the Union Pacific for their superior limiteds, and the Santa Fe for its fine limiteds through the southwest.


Despite these scattered examples, the millions of Americans who still prefer to travel considerable distances by rail are convinced that the industry has downgraded the passenger service steadily, swiftly, and deliberately. They would agree with the analysis of yet another committee that has examined American railroads in detail. In January, 1961, a special study group appointed by the Senate Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce concluded, after gloomily inspecting the rail passenger service: The very age of the railroad coach is one of its worst handicaps. The coach and the people who operate it seem to have forgotten how to change their habits and to have forgotten that innovation and intelligent improvement have been a hallmark of American business since well before the coach’s birth.

So matters stood when, in 1962, Senator Pell published his plan, deplored by most railroad executives but hailed with gratitude by despondent rail passengers all over the country. The Pell plan was less important for what it provided than for the discussion it aroused. (The plan envisioned an eight-state public authority, one that was to have owned and operated a high-speed railroad passenger service within Megalopolis—that is, the densely populated region from Boston to Washington; the system was to have been financed by long-term, tax-exempt bonds guaranteed by the government.) No sooner had news of it been published in the New York Times than Senator Pell sensed that he had struck a vein of purest political gold. Congratulatory letters poured into his office, and his proposal received extraordinarily friendly editorial comment in newspapers all over the country. Pell was encouraged; he was also persistent, and kept pressing the White House for executive action. He nagged, he pestered, and he could marshal battalions of disconcerting facts.